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Putin's People: The workings of Putin's violent and greedy regime laid bare

Non-Fiction: Putin's People

Catherine Belton

William Collins, 640 pages, hardback €21; e-book £7.99

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Iron fist: Vladamir Putin

Iron fist: Vladamir Putin

Putin's People by Catherine Belton

Putin's People by Catherine Belton

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Iron fist: Vladamir Putin

In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, his first adventure, our fearless boy reporter and his waggish companion find themselves seeking refuge in a log cabin in a frozen waste. The cabin is haunted; something about its clock striking 13 and ghostly wailing fails to convince Tintin. The noise is coming from a gramophone under a false floor. Descending a ladder, he is ambushed. "Where am I?" he asks a mean-eyed, cigar-puffing Bolshevik. "You're in the underground hideout," the Bolshevik tells him, "where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin have collected together the wealth stolen from the people... if by chance a peasant wandered into the haunted room which covers the entrance to our vaults, he'd be far too scared to pursue his investigations."

Ninety years on, enter that wanderer: not a peasant but the experienced former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, Catherine Belton, who has not been scared to explore deep into the recent history of those still extant money vaults. In the process, as she recounts in her relentless and magnificently detailed Putin's People, she has uncovered an increasingly repressive, violent and greedy autarchy, sustained by black money and inscribing Vladimir Putin's name way ahead of those of his Communist predecessors.

Many of the money vaults are, of course, abroad. By funnelling capital abroad year after year - hundreds of millions of dollars here, billions there - that is controlled by Russians who owe their fortunes to Putin and whose loyalty he entirely directs, Russia's president has created numberless reservoirs of untraceable money that as instruments of foreign policy are far more usable than nuclear weapons to destabilise his rivals.